Dressing-up is what the British do best: as the decade moves on, individualism moves in

LAST MARCH, around the time that John Major was rolling up his sleeves and pitching into gritty, man-of-the-people heart-to-hearts, Claudia Schiffer was swinging down the catwalk with a dubious expression on her face. Dressed in scarlet leather, gilt chains and knee-high bovver boots, she was wearing around pounds 4,000 worth of clothes. And yet here was a look that was ridiculously easy to rip off at second-hand stalls the world over, from Kensington Market to LA's Melrose Avenue. But maybe that was the point.

Maybe this was Lagerfeld's attempt, like Major's, at coming to terms with the realities of the Nineties. He wanted to acknowledge the way people were dressing, and nobody, now, was expected to buy the entire outfit - the bovver boots may even have been pure costumery. What it reflected was a new mood at work. Just when it seemed that this really was the decade when fashion was well and truly dead, there came signs that it was not only still alive, but preparing for a new burst of creativity (exactly at the point when the recession seemed to be deepening).

At first, you had to listen carefully for the pulse, because it sounded so different from the beat of Eighties fashion. But you could hear it in the patchwork velvets of Dolce e Gabbana, in the loony bell-bottoms and tank-tops of Lacroix or the kitsch million- dollar-cow-gal outfits at Versace (incongruously displayed on one of the four rococo floors of his new Bond Street shop); in Ozbek's dramatic floor-sweeping confederate coats and in the entire Vivienne Westwood show - an imaginative trawl through 500 years of British history - now one of the hottest tickets in Paris.

You could also hear, for the first time in several years, an excited buzz internationally about some of the newer designers, previously dismissed as risky novelties (Jean Colonna, Martin Margiela and Corinne Cobson in Paris,

Anna Sui and Todd Oldham in the United States).

All the clothes going down the runway cost a fortune, of course, but the general idea behind many of them - this kind of creative jumble-sale eclecticism - needn't. At times, the irony of it almost took your breath away. But there was more at stake here than designer cheek. Over and again, in the way they put their collections together, designers were reflecting the realities of a market- place in which, for any given season, customers will maybe buy one really interesting piece and mix it - with chain-store stuff, or, increasingly, with second-hand clothes. Their response was not to produce more of the same safe classics that saw in the decade, but to startle with the wonderful and, sometimes, the frankly weird.

You might think this new strain of bohemianism would sound the final death knell for fashion - certainly for designers. But curiously, if anything, it's reviving people's appetites. The white shirt and leggings ethos that seemed destined, a couple of years ago, to be the beginning and the end of Nineties fashion, looks now as though it merely represented a hiatus; a necessary breather while we weaned ourselves off the short, sharp Eighties silhouette and prepared for something new. People want to dress up.

DURING the first three years of this decade almost every retailer and consumer arrived at the conclusion that where the promise of upward mobility was once enough to hook consumers, it is now cost that determines whether or not they buy something. That may have been sound economics and a lesson worth learning after the excesses of the last decade. But it didn't make for compulsive viewing - either on the catwalks or in the high street. However, the more forward-thinking designers had begun to pick up on something more positive. Price, though crucial, is not everything. It's the semblance of individuality that now clinches a sale. Rather than needing to feel that they've joined some fashion elite when they buy an expensive designer piece, customers want to feel that they are expressing their personal ingenuity. To be dressed head to toe in obvious designer clothes is to be marked as a fashion victim - far cleverer to mix clothes of different provenance and eras, hence the resurgence of thrift-shop chic (the designer Helen Storey has even launched a range of refurbished second-hand clothes), and a Seventies-style artsy eclecticism.

This is very different from the late Eighties, when fashion got very serious. You could buy fake quilted Chanel bags and fake Chanel boucle suits, but somehow they never looked quite right (ie sufficiently expensive). The whole point with Eighties fashion was that it became a systematic acquiring of status symbols, so purchasing an imitation was somehow missing the point.

Aspirations have changed, and though fashion always will have its status symbols, these days they're less obvious: to the uninitiated, the nylon Prada bag looks like a utilitarian bargain, but it now outranks the Chanel quilted one in terms of kudos. By the same token, designers such as Westwood are outdoing themselves to give their clothes an antique look. The belief that you gets what you pays for is no longer regarded as an immutable truisim. Chastened by a collapsing price system (houses in the same street can be pounds 100,000 apart in price; patterned silk shirts can cost pounds 800 or pounds 100), consumers have learnt that high prices don't necessarily guarantee high quality. Status fashion has moved on from the easily identifiable standard cliches to items of clothing that look special because they are beautiful, unusual or luxurious in their own right. And people who have put their own version of a look together (without stepping inside a chichi shop) are now considered smart rather than ersatz - the designer decade has made way for the resourceful one.

THE Eighties supposedly saw a move away from one fashion for all towards an emphasis on personal style, but even so, there was a common belief (though it may have turned out to be a myth) that many aspired to the same goal. So one look, that of the successful career woman with her extended shoulders, became dominant. Melanie Griffith, playing the ambitious Wall Street executive, with her 'head for business and bod for sin', her abbreviated skirts and body-conscious Azzedine Alaia-inspired Lycra dresses, said it all, and became one of the most memorable celluloid heroines of the decade. Compare and contrast with the biggest screen heroines of the Nineties to have surfaced so far: Thelma and Louise, gum-chewing country gals who couldn't identify a designer label if it rolled down its car window and pointed a gun at them.

Where the emphasis in the late Eighties was on expensive good taste, and then, briefly, at the start of the Nineties, on showing how unimportant fashion was to you, the idea now is to show, in a not-too-serious way, what you can do with it. What is emerging is not one head-to-toe uniform but a kaleidoscope of looks: the Seventies revival, the Forties revival, some Suzie Wong, more dandies, wild- West and military styles thrown in for good measure - fragmented, fancy-dress looks for a society that, for the moment at least, is indulging in the illusion that it is composed of individuals rather than fashion sheep.

Consumers have adjusted to recession, not by affecting sackcloth (or its Nineties equivalent, the Gap), but by buying a couple of irresistible key items every so often.

The season's star performers, from Rifat Ozbek's velvet jackets to Gucci's ankle-length leather trench, are less about conforming to common fashion themes and more about providing great things to wear. Similarly, far from surrendering to the shell-suit mentality, chain stores are concentrating on small, high quality ranges that will only be available in selected stores. In the Eighties, this would have been called 'going upmarket'. Now, retailers think in terms of providing an element of individuality.

IRONICALLY, one of fashion's saviours is proving to be the long skirt, which, when it first reappeared last year, was criticised for being regressive. True, it may not represent anything radically new, but it has forced designers and consumers to rethink proportions, silhouettes and what to wear underneath. (Some of the biggest advances in fashion at the moment are in the underwear industry, which is developing lightweight but supportive lingerie that shapes and smooths the body). It also means that for the first time in two years there is a new look in the shops rather than more of the same. And customers finally seem ready for it.

In his New York and London shops, Joseph Ettedgui reports that he cannot sell a skirt unless it is long, and that clothes from young designers which were formerly given a wide berth because they were considered difficult, are now taking off. 'In the early Nineties we had the big labels at one end and street (fashion) at the other and in the middle there was no-fashion. But now that wide swathe of anti-fashion sentiment seems to be giving way to a sense of excitement about clothes again. I think Versace, Armani and Chanel will continue to do what they do - in a way they have moved beyond fashion. But it's the newer names that will provide the way forward.'

The changes are evident everywhere - not just in clothes. The matt-black-and-chrome accessories of mid-Eighties Docklands dwellers and the over chintzified bric-a-brac favoured in whitewashed Fulham terraces looks as dated now as the modular furniture of the Sixties. The fashionable are now decorating their homes with outsize George Sherlock sofas, left uncovered (it makes them look more like long-lost heirloms from the attic); they take note of thrifty ideas in magazines such as Elle Decoration, and they track down the sort of ethnic finds that look as though they might be culled from the re-discovered hippy trail (though they can get them in Ikea and Habitat).

The return of eclectic chic, while part of a general embracing of Seventies aesthetics, is also something very dear to British sensibilities, which never looked altogether at ease with the brash, dress-for-succcess formulae of the Eighties. We actually like mixing together odd bits and pieces - this may perhaps be a legacy of our passion for haggling for the cheapest deal (you rarely find two bargains that match). But there are other signs that Nineties fashion is dovetailing with our national approach to clothes.

With hard cash in short supply, irony has become the new currency; something of which there isn't much of a shortage in Britain. The renaissance of platform shoes, tank-tops, bell-bottoms and clogs - all items of dubious visual merit, but refreshing none the less - couldn't have happened in the Eighties when 'good taste' was all. The British, especially the young, with their innate attachment to clothes that are amusing or provocative but not neccesarily attractive, should now be in their element.

As Joseph Ettedgui says: 'I'm starting to look at the London streets for inspiration again. In Paris or Milan, women are simply too staid. In London there's a kind of fearless acceptance of the new that's very invigorating. It won't be too long before Americans and continentals are back here scouring the streets for ideas.'

Not all the results may be conventionally pleasing. But, as Diana Vreeland once observed, vulgarity is no bad thing, provided it has vitality: 'No taste is what I'm against', she said. In any case, not all the Seventies trends filtering into the shops are vulgar and kitsch. Many of them have been subtly reproportioned and modified. A still, quiet voice continues to reason forcefully for simple, luxurious clothes that may not look flashy, but are just as special as the showier pieces on the catwalks.

What is encouraging is that, far from having done everything and been everywhere, there are obviously still plenty of places for fashion to go. As it becomes clearer just what kind of society we're turning into (as opposed to the 'caring, sharing' mirage concocted by advertisers and the media at the start of the decade), we'll begin to get clothes that really address our needs. What do professional women really want to wear to work? How do you make comfortable clothes more elegant and vice versa? The smart Forties silhouette might look inspiring for the moment, but even its most enthusiastic fans could never claim that it is revolutionary.

What will be the definitive silhouette for the late Nineties? In many ways, the clothes we are seeing this season still represent a transition. But at least they acknowledge the need for change, even if they haven't found the perfect solution yet. The decade that began as a self-declared fashion non-event is shaping up nicely after all. -

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